Saving a Small Business in Trouble — Ten Things a Day

Ten things a day: Whatever you are facing, saving a business in trouble, or even just improving an already-successful business, it’s great advice.

By Alec Pendleton, Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by The MPI Group

All Business is Show Business. If you’re looking for a management challenge, look no further than professional theater. Just imagine all the issues facing a producer as he sets out to put a new play – especially a musical - on the stage. First, it must be written, all the dialogue and all the music. Then a director must be chosen, and then designers of costumes and sets and lighting. Then a theater must be rented, and a rehearsal space, and actors, and musicians, and on and on.

Theater is a completely collaborative undertaking. The efforts of a whole range of people with a wide variety of separate skills must all work together. And unlike many other things, the outcome is not clear until the job is done and the play is actually performed in front of an audience. Only then do you find out if it works, and usually you find out that it doesn’t.

By this time, in the case of a musical, you’ve spent millions of dollars, and if you can’t get it fixed the entire investment will be lost in a matter of days. So the tweaking begins: re-writing scenes, adding and subtracting songs, modifying the sets, sometimes replacing actors. This is done in a series of performances called “Previews”, typically leading to an already-scheduled Opening Night (when the critics come, with their knives out), so the pressure is on.

It used to be that musicals were tried out on the road, in cities other than New York, so they could be perfected before the critics could see them. But in the case of highly anticipated new works, often the critics would come from New York anyway, to Detroit or Boston or Philadelphia, for example, to get an early scoop on how things were going.

My brother is a professional actor, and early in his career he was involved in such a production. It was a very high profile undertaking, with big-name people involved – producer, director, composer, lyricist, leading actors – and the industry was all abuzz. It was playing in Detroit, and it was not going well. Audiences didn’t like it, it was an hour too long, and an increasing gloom was descending on the whole company. Nobody wants to be part of a flop.

There was a bar close to the theater, and after a long day of frustrating rehearsals and unappreciative audiences, the company would typically gather there to exchange gossip and drown their sorrows. One such gathering took place on a particularly bad night. A critic from Variety (the industry equivalent of the Wall Street Journal) had come out from New York and written a scathing article about how bad the show was, predicting that it would close before it ever got to New York. The mood in the company was morose, with everyone predicting how soon they would all be fired.

In a corner of the bar, the director sat alone, lost in thought and not wanting to mingle with his demoralized company. Seeing him there by himself, my brother went over to talk with him, perhaps to get an inside scoop, or at least to comfort the guy. He asked him what he was going to do, and the director replied:

“Ten things a day”.

And he did. The show moved on, from Detroit to Washington and Philadelphia, fixing ten things a day as it went. And when it finally made it to New York, it was a huge hit. The show was Fiddler on the Roof, one of the great success stories in all of musical theater.

Ten things a day. What great advice that is! Years later, one of my companies was in deep trouble. Sales were falling, production was a mess, even the accounting was haywire (which made it very difficult to highlight where the problems were). The bank was tightening the screws; they put us in “workout”, which is usually like being sent to hospice: the end is near, and the bank wants to salvage what it can from a bad loan.

Remembering Fiddler on the Roof, I set out to fix ten things a day. It took a long, scary time, and there were many days when I didn’t know if we’d make it, but we did (with a different bank, by the way!). Today the company is thriving, profitable even through the recent recession, and looks to have a long life ahead of it.

Ten things a day.

Whatever you are facing, saving a business in trouble, or even just improving an already-successful business, it’s great advice.

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